popular science

The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.

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However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.

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A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis

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Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.

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Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts

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A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.

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Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts

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Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.

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Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.

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A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.

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Perils of Click-Bait Science Communication, or There’s Many a Slip ‘twixt the Cup and the Lip

Science communication plays an integral role in bridging the gap between academia and the public. Science writers have the tricky job of distilling complex ideas into digestible pieces, and explaining highly-specialized experiments in a way the public might find interesting. Research highlighted in the media can become part of a larger cultural conversation and have a more direct impact on people’s lives. However, in this process, a research article undergoes multiple reinterpretations, and can become detached from the original material. As a result of this process, science for public consumption tends to overemphasize human relevance, lose qualifiers or context, and frequently employs ‘click-bait’ methods of choosing catchy titles that distort the results and implications of the research.

A particularly painful example of the pitfalls of a catchy title happened in the highlight of an article on primate sexual behavior. In December 2014, a group of researchers published a study on reproductive conflict and male aggression in chimpanzees. [1] They found a correlation between high-ranking male aggression toward females during the females’ non-fertile period, and the amount of offspring that male fathered. The scientists hypothesized that sustained male aggression played a role in sexual coercion. The title of their article was relatively innocuous: “Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. However, in a companion piece meant to attract attention and describe the research for a more general audience, the title lost some nuance: “Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last.”[2]

Nice guys finish last is a trope that has been increasingly adopted by the MRA (Men’s Rights Advocacy) movement to disparage the sexual choices of women. Although the use of this phrase was likely to add levity and attract attention with no ill intention, I was startled to see Nice guys finish last used so flippantly in a scientific journal without any consideration of the broader cultural implications. Especially last year, when misogynistic ideologies perpetuated violence against women that could not be ignored,[3] it was disturbing to see this phrase used in a way that normalized as natural biological behavior male violence towards women.

Popular science writing about fruit fly sexual behavior can also be extremely anthropomorphic and distasteful. I have come across a couple of examples in my own research area that set my teeth on edge.

About a dozen years ago scientists identified a gene that when mutated resulted in male fruit flies courting and trying to mate with other males. Their article “Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila” discussed this gene in terms of regulation of fruit fly reproductive behavior and the flies’ ability to distinguish between females and males.[4] Misguidedly, a news post on the Science journal website decided to make this research stand out by suggesting it had direct relationship with human sexuality. In an outrageous cognitive jump, the piece was called “How to Make a Fly Bi” and included a figure caption and other language that insinuated bisexuality was the equivalent to lowered inhibitions and increased promiscuity.[5] Bisexual advocates struggle to combat the misconceptions that bisexuality is equivalent to a lack of discernment or confusion. But here, popular writing associated with  a respected science journal perpetuated in these misconceptions and problematic assumptions about bisexuality.

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Research on changes in female fruit fly behavior after mating suffered a similar fate in popular media. A study titled “Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female” found that a specific component of the male ejaculate decreased the amount a female sleeps after mating and also increases foraging activity. [6] In a blurb on the research by the University’s publicity office the title became “Female fruit flies do chores after sex”.[7] An article by a clinical psychologist on the HuffPost Healthy Living Blog took it even further: “Housework After Sex, Not Sleep.” [8] These accessible articles drew a direct relationship between fruit fly behavior and women’s “domestic-type duties or housework” that were not implied in the original research. Although I do think changes in postmating behavior in fruit flies have some fascinating implications for changes in human behavior during gestation and birth, a direct comparison cannot be made. I am concerned about the way the popular media twisted the scientific research to reaffirm underlying assumptions of a woman’s domestic role and primary childcare provider.

Popular science writing wants to attract public interest. As a result, the cautious conclusions that scientists make with clearly stated caveats and limitations can be distorted and aggrandized in the process. Scarily, it can then be used to further a political or philosophical agenda. There is a clear responsibility for science journalists to be more rigorous in reporting the intricacies of science research, as well as be more cognizant of the ways their reporting uses research to reaffirm cultural stereotypes. As a scientist, I also wonder what is our responsibility after we publish a paper? Are we completely out of control of the dissemination of information to the public? If research is taken out of context, or absurd associations to humans are drawn, if the scientist is appalled with the implications derived from their work, what should we do? Scientists need to become more involved in the science communication process, and to be trained how to explain and our research in ways that the public can understand, but that still situate it appropriately in broader contexts. The challenge is finding the time and a platform for a scientist to make sure the totality of their research message makes it safely, with only minimal slips, to the public.

 


[1] Feldblum, J.T., Wroblewske, E.E., Rudicell, R.S., Hahn, B.H., Paiva, T., Cetinkaya-Rundel, M., Pusey, A.E., Gilby, I.C. 2014. Sexually Coercive Male Chimpanzees Sire More Offspring. Current Biology. 24: 2855 – 2860.

[2] Thompson, M.E. 2014. Sexual Conflict: Nice Guys Finish Last. Dispatch, Current Biology. 24: R1125 – R1127.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/24/elliot-rodgers-california-shooting-mental-health-misogyny

[4] Kitamoto, T. 2002. Conditional Disruption of Synaptic Transmission Induces Male-Male Courtship Behavior in Drosophila. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences.

[5] Beckman, M. 2002. How to Make a Fly Bi. Science News Biology http://news.sciencemag.org/2002/09/how-make-fly-bi

[6] Isaac, R. E., Li, C., Leedale, A.D. 2009. Drosophila male sex peptide inhibits siesta sleep and promotes locomotor activity in the post-mated female. Proc. Royal. Soc. B.

[7] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090929203941.htm

[8] Breus, M.J. 2010. Housework After Sex, Not Sleep. Huffpost Healthy Living Blog. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-michael-j-breus/housework-after-sex-not-s_b_345568.html

 


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.